May Issue 2005

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Two years ago, a US Congress Research Report rejected the complaint of US arms manufacturers that the political strings attached to arms exports by the US Congress and administration damaged the competitiveness of US weapons manufacture on the global arms market. The rejection was based on concrete facts. According to the report, ‘Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations,’ the United States has had the largest share of both new contracts and deliveries to the world for at least eight years in a row. None of the other countries dealing in weapons come even close to the US in the total amount of weapons delivered to developing nations over the past decade. The total value of arms transfer agreements the US signed with the developing countries was 54.8 billion dollars, which was more than the value of arms exports by all the other major arms suppliers (France, Russia, UK and China) put together during the same period.

In all probability, US dominance in the world arms market is likely to continue. Military analysts say that its share of world arms sales is likely to increase even further. Pakistan, a frontline state in the global war against terrorism, started receiving arms supplies immediately after the events following 9/11, when the Bush administration lifted all military sanctions against the country. However, despite intense lobbying from Pakistan, the US administration remained reluctant to supply “high-value weapons” or offensive arms to Pakistan until last month, when the announcement of F-16s sales was made. Following the last meeting of the Pak-US Defense Consultative Group, officials confirmed that the volume and nature of the weaponry transfer is likely to improve in the coming years.

Independent sources maintain that the US administration probably informed Pakistani military authorities about the Bush administration’s decision to sell F-16s way back in September 2004, when senior Pakistani military officials had visited Washington. During the last four years, the weapons Pakistan has received from America have been aimed at bolstering the capability of Pakistan’s security forces in combating terrorism. For the first time since this defense relationship has resumed, however, the US has agreed to sell Pakistan an offensive weaponry system as part of its military assistance programme. The cost of the F-16s will cover almost half of the three billion-dollar economic and military assistance package offered to Pakistan by the first Bush Administration.

Coinciding with the US administration’s decision to sell F-16s to Pakistan is its offer to sell modern aircraft and command and control systems to India, as are the bilateral talks between India and the US on the strategically important anti-ballistic missile defense system deal.

Though traditionally wary of the strings attached to US weaponry deals, the Indian government intends to give serious consideration to the latest US offer, a much more comprehensive package than that offered to Pakistan. This includes weapons systems, technology transfers and facilities to produce spare parts locally.

With these South Asian arms deals, the US has suddenly transformed itself from a staunch anti-arms race preacher into a prospective major arms supplier. The US arms industry is also set to bid for a multi-billion dollar fighter aircraft deal — the largest arms deal ever in the subcontinent’s history. US military officials recently also visited New Delhi to give a classified presentation to Indian defense planners on the effectiveness of Patriot surface to air, and air defense missile systems which indicate another multi-billion dollars arms deal in the offing. The total amount of arms sales to Pakistan are meager in comparison.

What does this augur for the region? US officials have rejected outright the possibility of arms sales leading to a regional arms race. While explaining the sale of F-16s to Pakistan, Secretary Rice said that the deal has to be analysed in a larger context. Rice mentioned Afghanistan and Central Asian states as important for American interests in the future. “If you look at it, there is an entire arc there that is very important to American interests in the future, and we’re going to pursue all of those relationships on their own terms, and in this context the F-16 issue with Pakistan makes sense,” she said in an interview with an American newspaper. Asked about the Indian deal, she said the US administration wanted to project itself as a reliable supplier of high quality defense equipment.

The question is, why has America decided to change its age-old policy of arms transfers to the region? The arms acquisition plans of Pakistan and India were public knowledge much before the US announcement to sell high-value weapons to South Asian rivals. Pakistan was considering buying Swedish Grippen fighter jets, while India planned to purchase the Mirage 2005 from Qatar, and was awaiting financial approval from the government. Within a week of the F-16 deal, the Indian cabinet approved a budget for the purchase of 12 mirages 2005 from the Middle Eastern monarchy.

Islamabad-based military analysts say that the both countries have well chalked out military modernisation programmes. Most analysts do not view the impending arms purchases as constituting a full-fledged arms race in the region. “To call it an arms race is a misnomer,” says retired general and defense analyst, Talat Masood.

Both official statements and independent commentaries have left the timing of the US offer to sell offensive weaponry systems to Pakistan and India open to speculation. However, given the fall in the real value of US arms exports during the last two years, the benefits of these sales to the US are axiomatic. “The value of all arms transfer agreements to developing nations in 2003 was over 13.7 billion dollars. This was a substantial decrease over 2002, and the lowest total in real terms for the entire period from 1996-2003,” reads a US congress research report. Pakistan’s order alone saved the Lockheed Martin’s production line for F-16 aircrafts from closure. Bush’s decision to sell F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan has, therefore, been warmly greeted in Fort Worth, as it has in Pakistan’s power corridors. By offering arms to India and Pakistan, the US also expects to gain a certain amount of leverage with both countries.

Conventional wisdom in Pakistan suggests that the US had offered similar advanced weaponry systems to India in an effort to maintain the traditional arms balance between the two nations. In anticipation of Indian protest, it is perceived that the US offered both F-16s and F-18s to India in an attempt to placate the Indians and maintain its military edge. However, while the promise of an unlimited number of F-16s might hinder Pakistan from looking elsewhere for military hardware, defense analysts say that the same logic doesn’t apply to India. “India already has a diversified procurement policy and its economic base gives it the capacity to look for other sources of procurement,” says Talat Masood. The Indian Air Force (IAF) is likely to issue a tender next month inviting bids for a multi-billion-dollar contract to acquire 200 combat aircraft (126 multi-role and 74 strike and air defence) by 2010. Currently, Dassault Aviation of France, with its Mirage 2000-V-Mk2, Sweden’s SAAB, with its JAS 39C Gripen and Russia’s RSK MiG Corporation, with its MiG-29M/M2, are all vying for the contract with India, worth around five billion-dollars over five years. With the US offering F-16s and F-18s to the region, Lockheed Martin is also set to bid for the contract. In the latest development, the Lockheed Martin management has offered to build exclusive F-16s for the Indian Air Force, “far superior to any existing fighters in service anywhere in the world.”

Whatever the outcome of the Indian tender process, and whether Pakistan decides to purchase a fourth generation of fighter aircrafts in the near future, it is certain that the US is poised to become the largest supplier of major weapon systems to the subcontinent.